The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

Scalia and “Lesser” Schools

Scalia and Fisher II

Last week I, like others, was taken aback by Justice Scalia’s comments during oral argument in the UT affirmative action case (Fisher II, comments on pp.67-68).  To me it sounded like an endorsement of separate but equal, and I made a tweet to that effect.  But since then, I’ve had an actual constructive interchange with a conservative friend on Facebook that has inspired me to write more–if only to prove that there is such a thing as a constructive political discussion on Facebook.  I will stand by my tweet (that’s a sentence I never thought I would ever write sincerely) and want to address my thoughts to five points.

First, that the language we use to discuss the position matters.  It is the way Scalia talked about the issue that justifies my characterization of it, whether or not one believes in mismatch theory generally.  Second, that there is, in fact, a problem with race in education in this country in general and with lawyers in particular.  We might disagree on the means to redress it, but we should all be dissatisfied with the scale and scope of the problem.  Third, that there’s more than one way to build an admitted class.  So much of the discussion seems to focus on the “fact” that better standardized tests make a better candidate, when much of admissions is moving towards other criteria, including non-cognitive criteria.  Fourth, that really addressing diversity doesn’t just end with admissions.  If we only change the way we admit students but not the way in which we support and address their needs, then we’re not good teachers.  And finally, I think the practice of law in particular has important social networking effects, effects that translate into real opportunity. Continue reading “Scalia and “Lesser” Schools”

Lunacy of college sports

This is completely crazy, not to mention abusive. A ninth-grader is committing to a college because of a soccer scholarship. It verges on the immorality of arranged child marriages: this kid spent almost every evening in eighth grade talking to coaches instead of doing homework (or having fun!).  The whole story is worth a read, as it shows how this madness isn’t even good for soccer itself, never mind the players.

No fourteen-year-old (putting aside prodigies who have already blown away their high school courses) can possibly know what college, or what kind of college, will be the best fit for her four-years-older and -more-experienced self.  Period. What if she decides she wants to be an engineer and CalTech starts to look attractive, or a singer and discovers Berklee, or for that matter decides rugby is more fun than soccer? She can ditch the UTA scholarship and go elsewhere, but will she even explore those things if she’s spending her whole high school career assuming her die is cast, taking her commitment seriously, and living on a playing field?  What if she gets hurt in 12th grade and didn’t get the GPA that would put her on a good career track that uses the inside of her head?

This industry is deeply and pervasively sick.  The presidents — yes, and AD’s –who allow it to go on as it is are simply contemptible and cowardly. And Ms. Berg’s parents could spend some quality time thinking about their responsibilities, too.

Promote Faculty Based on Where They Work, Not Where They Don’t

Is it really fair to promote professors based in part on other university’s standards?

Like most professors, I often serve as an external referee when other universities are deciding whether to promote one of their faculty members. Although I’m glad to take on this important role, one line in the cover letters of some promotion review packets makes me highly uncomfortable: “as part of your review, please inform us whether this candidate would be promoted to the same rank if s/he were at your university”. I fear that this question is neither wise nor fair, for two reasons.

(1) Many Metrics of Professorial Success Vary with Institutional Mission

Diversity of structure and mission is one of the strengths of the ensemble of U.S. universities and matches the needs and aspirations of the diverse population they serve. One institution of higher learning may focus heavily on providing undergraduate education to young people who are the first in the family to go to college, while another focuses more on scholarship and still another on professional education to adults with established careers. What faculty are expected to do, quite appropriately, varies in response to such differences in institutional mission.

Stanford University — or indeed any one university — therefore shouldn’t be taken as the measure of all things in faculty promotion decisions. I was promoted at Stanford but there are other institutions where I would not deserve promotion because I am not very good at the core activities they ask their faculty to undertake. Likewise, someone who would probably not be promoted at Stanford could be the pluperfect professor at another institution with a different mission.

(2) Even for Common Metrics of Success, Opportunities to Achieve Differ Across Institutions

A promotion committee chair might respond to the worries I have just articulated by saying “Yes, institutional missions can vary, but our university values research, for which standardized metrics are available to help external reviewers judge fairly whether our faculty would be promoted at their equally research-oriented university”. Type and impact of peer-reviewed publications, grants garnered and scholarly awards received can indeed be compared from professor to professor and from university to university. But it doesn’t follow that faculty research success perfectly reflects whether promotion is warranted because of the varying opportunities universities offer their professors.

For example, a large, urban university affiliated with a public hospital presents faculty with scholarly challenges and opportunities distinct from those of a small, rural institution affiliated with a state agricultural extension service. More generally, wealthier universities like Stanford can facilitate professor’s research success more than can less fortunate institutions (e.g., by offering protected time for scholarship, high-tech research equipment and larger networks of accomplished colleagues in one’s area).

When I am asked to judge if a faculty member with X level of research success would be promoted at Stanford, the counterfactual hangs in my mind: If they were really at Stanford, might they have received more research opportunities and as a result succeeded at a 2X or 3X or more level? If so, isn’t it unfair to hold them to our standards when they didn’t get the resources my Stanford colleagues and I receive to support our scholarly work?

Institutional Worries About Promotion Standards Shouldn’t Be Tackled Within Individual Cases

Some people might argue that despite the fact that universities ask different things of their faculty and have differing levels of resources to help faculty achieve, it is still reasonable to ask external promotion referees whether a candidate would be promoted at the referee’s university as a check on community norms, i.e., “Tell us whether our university is holding candidates to widely-accepted promotion standards”.

I don’t buy it.

If a university’s leadership feels that its expectations of faculty are fundamentally wrong-headed or dangerously out of step with national trends, that’s certainly a problem worth engaging. But the appropriate place to engage it is absolutely not within the context of promotion decisions about individual faculty who were told when they were hired to meet their own university’s standards rather than someone else’s. If a university is articulating the wrong standards or not providing the resources required to meet them, that’s not the fault of any individual professor, it’s a systemic challenge the administration must take on.

In the meantime, I hope promotion committees will stop asking referees about whether their faculty deserve promotion somewhere else and just worry about whether they deserve promotion where they actually work.

Active engagement in the arts

I deplore the passivization of arts engagement that has replaced people doing amateur theater, or painting and making sculpture, or making music together, with listening to and looking at stuff done for them by professionals.  Nothing wrong with the latter, but we have got the balance wrong. Here are two examples of what we need more of :

My wife has been singing with a really good non-audition community chorus this year.  Every week, they get together and rehearse, and then they put on two or three concerts a year for friends, relatives and neighbors.  They don’t quail at the real stuff; so far this year they’ve done the Vivaldi Gloria and the Mozart Requiem.  Next spring, a program of music by New York composers, including the really ethereal Frost/Thompson Choose something like a star, hoo boy.  Debbie comes home from rehearsals and tells me about all she learned about music and singing that evening; sometimes (not enough) we pull out some sheet music and fire up the piano and sing just for ourselves.

If you think about it, there’s not much nicer you can do for your friends and relations than make music for them: sending everyone a CD of a professional chorus doing the same numbers isn’t even close.

Life for an organization like this is sort of like being an elected official, constantly putting the real work aside for endless fundraising. They charge $10 for concert tickets, but the singers also pay dues.  The fundraising doesn’t do a thing for the music, but the singers put up with it so they can sing together and occasionally have soloists and a small orchestra. It’s both inspiring and saddening to realize what a short financial leash enterprises like this have: the big splurge for the CCC this year was a set of risers so the singers can see and be seen over each others’ heads.

Last week we went to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s  last fall concert .  This was a completely professional-level performance, including A flock descends by Toru Takemitsu (they always program at least one contemporary work);  the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto; and (part of the celebrations of our new organ, which university organist Davitt Moroney still can’t talk about without a really radiant grin) the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Continue reading “Active engagement in the arts”

How low can we go?

Let’s just check the scoreboard here:

Cal football and men’s basketball have the lowest graduation rates of any FBS school.  Not PAC12, FBS: that’s national, baby!  The football team is 1-10 and a 31-1/2 pt underdog for Saturday’s Big Game; MBB is not ranked in either poll for this year.  The campus is on the hook for a third-of-a-billion dollar loan for a coaching office palace/booster party venue/conditioning center: losing programs don’t sell tickets.  The program is supposed to break even, but loses $7 to $10m per year, year after year.  One of the football players sent a teammate to the hospital a couple of weeks ago in a locker-room fight.

You might think our Intercollegiate Athletics Program, who get to sell the Cal logo for chotchkes and sweatshirts, has some kind of pervasive management problem, but you might be surprised to learn that they seem to have an even more serious morality problem. This billboard is glowing above our local freeway only a few miles from campus.  The pic is fuzzy, taken with a cell phone; if you can’t read the text, it says “we will sell drugs to our students, and everyone else, if there’s money in it for sports.” Mark says “Alcohol is not just a drug, but the archetypal drug: the drug most widely used and the drug that causes the most addiction, disease, and violence.” We have a real student drinking problem at Cal, and it seems to be getting worse.

Cal and Coors BillboardThe Associate Vice Chancellor, to whom an inquiry from one of our profs was bucked by the Chancellor, assures us

The Intercollegiate Athletics program has a master agreement to sell advertising and promotional space using Cal assets with a number of vendors.  Part of the overarching agreement includes a contract with Coors/Miller.

I understand your concerns, and will be talking with the vice chancellor of administration to discuss the alcohol ads and to explore ways to ensure that future promotions are aligned with the core values of Berkeley and our brand.

Discuss?  Explore ways to insure?  Am I missing something here; can this discussion take more than thirty seconds?

Which cigarette brand do we think will win the bidding to put a Cal logo on their packs?

Quality Assurance Program for Teaching

What would a quality assurance program for teaching at the higher-education level look like? We don’t have one now, nor even much to build on, but perhaps there are analogous programs we could adapt or copy. I think there are, and I will suggest an approach below. Continue reading “Quality Assurance Program for Teaching”

Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves

Bob Frank opens his reflections on teaching economics with a discouraging examination of how badly we get our students to understand the really wonderful content of his discipline. Why do educated people think it makes them appear witty to repeat a dumb bromide like “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”?   Statistics is in a similar position (“there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”).  This kind of joke, based in willful ignorance, is diagnostic of an affective failure, not an intellectual one.  Students are afraid of this material, not just bored, as something being done to them that will make them worse people in some way, against which they need to defend themselves.  How many people loved their intro stats course, and still remember the eye-opening realization that they had acquired powerful tools with which to understand and improve a complicated, random, changing world?

Statistics and economics university departments are also similar in being tasked with “service” courses for students in other majors and general education introductions, as well as professional apprenticeships for people whose careers will be in creating new methods in the disciplines themselves. As a consumer of the former service–those introductory courses are an input to my teaching production function–I often have occasion to weep, gnash my teeth, and rend my academic regalia, even though I am only hoping for student command of the few big ideas Frank claims should constitute the entire curriculum of an introductory course.  But as a disciple of Deming, I discount absolute-scale measures and prefer to manage on the derivative: no matter where we are now, could things be [even] better? how? Continue reading “Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves”